Law Allowing Magistrates to Refuse to Marry Same-Sex Couples Survives Court Challenge – on a Technicality


'The Outcome Here Is in No Way a Comment on Same-Sex Marriage'

A federal appeals court has dismissed a case brought by three couples who argued North Carolina's law allowing magistrates to cite a "sincerely held religious objection" in refusing to perform weddings for same-sex couples is unconstitutional. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case on a technicality rather than on the merits, ruling the three couples did not have sufficient standing to contest the law, as they were not personally harmed by it.

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote that "the plaintiffs, all of whom are either married or engaged, do not claim that the state has impeded their right to get married. Instead, they challenge the religious exemption as taxpayers who object to the alleged spending of public funds in aid of religion."

Judge Harvie, a Reagan appointee, also wrote: 

"The outcome here is in no way a comment on same-sex marriage as a matter of social policy. The case before us is far more technical—whether plaintiffs, simply by virtue of their status as state taxpayers, have alleged a personal, particularized injury for the purposes of Article III standing. Based on a century of Supreme Court precedent, we conclude that they have not."

The law, known as SB 2, was drafted and passed ahead of the Supreme Court's ruling that, as lawmakers expected, found same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. 

"The 2015 law allows magistrates to recuse themselves from performing marriages 'based on any sincerely held religious objections.' Those who file such notices are prevented from officiating at all marriages – gay and heterosexual – for at least six months," WRAL reports.

The law also allows staffers in county register of deeds offices to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses, but it requires counties to make other magistrates or staffers available to handle marriage licenses and same-sex weddings in the event of recusals.

Utah and Mississippi also have laws allowing public officials to recuse themselves from performing marriages because of religious beliefs, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The couples filed the lawsuit at the end of 2015.

“SB2 is unjust and distorts the true meaning of religious freedom,” Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality said in a statement. “From day one, it’s been clear that SB2 is about one thing – finding a new way to discriminate against same-sex couples and privileging one set of religious beliefs over others. We will keep standing up to discrimination until LGBTQ North Carolinians are equal in every sphere of life.”

As of July, 2015, 14 magistrates had taken advantage of the law, and all magistrates in one North Carolina county had availed themselves of the law, requiring the magistrates from other counties to help out.

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Image via Southern Equality/Twitter